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Pathways to suicide
Social factors play an important role says latest research

By Janine Shamos

South Africa’s suicide rate in on the increase. More people across all socio-economic groups, and ages, are taking their lives. In today’s South African climate, there is every probability that you will face crime, unemployment, financial problems, relationship issues and divorce, and a new study challenges traditional views on the causes of suicide and lends new insight into what drives someone to take their lives.

“Society tends to downplay the causes or reasons someone takes their life”, says Johannesburg-based psychiatrist Dr Frans Korb. “We tend to believe that men in particular commit suicide because of a mental illness. This new study confronts that stereotype and suggests that social factors, and not mental illness, are the reasons for the increase in male suicide.”

This new study conducted by researchers at the University of Western Sydney’s UWS Men's Health Information and Resource Centre (MHIRC) draws attention to societal factors which may determine whether or not a man thinks about or takes his life. "It's often a combination of social factors, not initially mental health problems, which cause men to kill themselves," says MHIRC’s co-director Professor Macdonald.

Sadly, there is little research on the role that social factors, like divorce, unemployment, and separation from children, may have in determining suicide risk, and in South Africa there is minimal research done in the field of mental health.. “Because little to no research is done here, we look to international research to help us determine new ways of looking at and treating suicidal ideation”, says Dr Korb. “This research is ground-breaking and helps us see new pathways to suicide which will hopefully help everyone in society pick up warning signs before tragedy strikes.”

South Africa’s psychiatrists and psychologists have warned that the looming financial crisis, rising divorce rates, and society’s conditioning that ‘boys don’t cry’, combine to put men at increased risk for suicide. Indeed the statistics bear that out. Although twice as many women present for therapy, almost 5 times as many men commit suicide. “Recent economic hardship, unemployment and the financial crisis are all reasons that men have more stress to contend with, are under enormous pressure to perform in the competitive workplace, and are often judged on wealth”, says psychiatrist Dr Dora Wynchank. “We have seen a number of factors become more prominent recently: interpersonal problems, marital and relationship issues, financial problems, social and occupational stress, and feelings of loss of support because of family change. Alcohol also plays a prominent role because men tend to self-medicate by drinking too much rather than admitting they’re not coping and going for help.” When a number of these social factors come together, men may feel overwhelmed enough to contemplate suicide.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group is one of SA’s largest mental health NGOs and runs the country’s only toll-free suicide crisis lines. They say they are receiving more calls now than ever before from men who are struggling to cope. “Many men are not coping financially or emotionally”, says SADAG’s Cassey Amoore. “They don’t talk to friends or family because of the social stigma and their one support system isn’t there. They call needing advice and support.” SADAG offers support, advise, information and referral to patients as well as loved ones. Their Suicide Crisis Line 0800 567 567, Substance Abuse Line 0800 12 13 14, and SMS (32312) are open 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm. “Our counsellors are there when, for many people, no-one else is”, says Amoore.

The MHIRC’s research showed the pathways to suicide included employment issues (overwork or lack of job security), negative childhood experiences, and drug and alcohol use. While a mental illness was not the only risk factor, it is important to remember that stressful or adverse events can lead to mental stress.

But it’s not all bad news. The research also clearly showed that there are ways to protect the mental health and wellness of everyone, not only men. Social connections, close family bonds, and social support and interests outside families all serve to protect men against the hopelessness and distress caused by environmental factors. “We all need someone to trust, someone to talk to, and somewhere we feel safe”, says Dr Korb. “Get involved with activities you are good at and enjoy, socialise in ways that don’t revolve around alcohol, and ask for help if you need it.” There are courses and workshops that teach people coping skills and how to effectively communicate.

As a society we should not get side-tracked by only focusing on depression and mental illness. We need to look beyond that and put structures in place to protect and support all our citizens from suicide and self-harm. "Hopefully this research will open our minds and fields of awareness, save more men, and prevent the trauma felt by the families who are left behind."

Where to get help:
· SADAG 011 262 6396 / 0800 567 567
· Substance Abuse line 0800 12 13 14
· FAMSA 011 975 7106
· Debt Counselling 0861 663 328


ENDS

For more information, please call:

Cassey Amoore at SADAG 011 262 6396
Janine Shamos 082 338 9666